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Mac mini

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When Steve Jobs unveiled the Mac mini at Macworld Expo in January, the reaction was a mix of amazement (how did they get that Mac so small?) and uncertainty (can a well-made computer really come in a tiny package?). After all, many Mac veterans thought they’d seen it before—they haven’t forgotten the ill-fated Power Mac G4 Cube, Apple’s other diminutive Mac.

But Mac lovers haven’t seen this before. The Mac mini isn’t targeted at design pros, it’s for regular folks who want to do basic tasks. And it costs as little as $499. It just may be the perfect upgrade for many Mac users, and Windows-to-Mac switchers.

We’ve given the Mac mini a thorough going-over, even dismantling it to probe its insides. We can now report that, although the Mac mini has its flaws—such as its unacceptably tiny amount of RAM—many people will find it the perfect Mac.

The Setup

The most fun aspect about trying out the Mac mini was setting it up. Taking the Mac mini out of its box is a one-handed operation, since the computer only weighs about 3 pounds. In fact, it’s easy to be taken aback by the Mac mini’s miniscule size; next to an aging Power Mac G4, the mini looks like an external hard drive. And with a footprint of only 6.5 inches square and a height of 2 inches, it might even get lost on a desk full of speakers, a monitor, a lamp, and papers.

The Mac mini’s power brick, on the other hand, is not mini at all—it’s rather large—but it can at least hide out behind a desk. The power source’s location outside the case is really what lets the Mac mini stay so small. In fact, the power brick indicates an overall theme here: you need to have some external components to really make the most of this machine. If you have a few USB devices, you’ll need a USB hub to plug them in, since the Mac mini only has two USB 2.0 ports. And you’ll want to connect your FireWire devices to each other (daisy-chaining) to compensate for the mini’s sole FireWire 400 port.

Connecting a display was quick work: if needed, the DVI video outlet can be converted to work with a VGA monitor using the included adapter, and you can also watch slideshows and movies on a TV using the $19 DVI to Video Adapter.

Also on the back of the mini is a row of air vents, the Power button (which is a little hard to find without turning the computer around to see it), a headphone/audio-out port, Ethernet jack, modem jack, the power adapter slot (which could be confused with a USB or FireWire port) and a security slot. The only port some people will miss is an audio-in.

The brushed aluminum box with the curved corners looks laughably small next to a monitor. We also used the Mac mini while it was standing on its side, which works well, provided it has adequate space for ventilation. In fact, for people with small children, it may be ideal to place the Mac mini high on a shelf to keep it away from curious hands. Apple repeatedly warns in its manual not to place anything on top of the Mac mini, as it might interfere with your wireless Internet or Bluetooth connection, should you elect those options. And like Apple’s musical hit, the iPod, the Lucite white top of the Mac mini is easily scratched—a fact we found out the hard way. The rubberized bottom guards against slipping and raises the Mac mini up off a desk to keep air moving out of the unit.

Your Mini Choices

The Mac mini comes in two configurations: the $499 model, with a 1.25GHz G4 processor, 256MB of RAM, a 40GB hard drive, and a Combo (CD-RW/DVD-ROM) drive; and a $599 model that brings the processor to 1.42GHz processor and the hard drive to 80GB. Consider our strong recommendation to get additional RAM at $75 for 512MB, and that you may opt for the extras—an 4x SuperDrive is $100, Bluetooth is $50 and an AirPort Extreme card is $79 (or $99 for both wireless options)—and you’re looking at a price tag well over $499, but still about $200 less than the next-least-expensive Mac. However, iLife ’05, which comes in the box, and most of Apple’s other included apps, such as Mail, Address Book and iCal, really add value to the package. You can get a lot of use from the Mac mini right out of the box.

Apple also includes the Mac mini with 90 days of free phone support—nothing to sneeze at—and a one-year limited warranty, extendable to up to three years if you purchase the $149 AppleCare Protection Plan. And kudos to Apple for including a succinct, informative, and easy-to-read manual (yes, it really is worth reading).

Decent Performer

Although the Mac mini is a desktop machine, many of its components—hard drives, optical drives, processor, and graphics card—are the same as those in the iBook G4. That means that you shouldn’t expect the same kind of performance from this machine as you would from an eMac or iMac. In fact, our test results showed that overall, the 1.25GHz Mac mini was significantly slower than an 1.25GHz eMac G4, especially in the iMovie rendering test, the Photoshop Suite test and the Compressor MPEG-2 encoding test.

Macworld Lab Test

Speedmark 3.3 Finder Cinema 4D XL 8.5 iMovie HD iTunes 4.7 Adobe Photoshop 8.0 Unreal Tournament Compressor
Mac Mini G4/1.25 GHz 117 0:41 5:26 1:27 2:50 2:31 17.2 15:03
Mac Mini G4/1.42GHz 123 0:51 4:52 0:59 2:32 2:12 17.5 13:56
eMac G4/1.25GHz 129 0:26 5:28 1:05 2:53 2:14 16.4 14:04
iMac G5/1.6GHz 153 0:33 3:25 0:45 2:04 2:06 34.7 11:10
>better <better <better <better <better <better >better <better

Best results in bold. Reference system in italics .

Speedmark 3.3 scores are relative to those of a 1GHz eMac G4, which is assigned a score of 100. Finder, Cinema 4D XL, Compressor, iMovie, iTunes, and Photoshop scores are in minutes:seconds. All systems were running Mac OS X 10.3.7 with 512MB of RAM. We exported a 1-minute-and-40-second movie to QuickTime: Email using iMovie. We tested MP3 encoding with an audio CD that was 45 minutes long, converting it from the hard drive using iTunes’ High Quality setting. The Photoshop Suite test is a set of 14 scripted tasks using a 50MB file. Photoshop’s memory was set to 75 percent and History was set to Minimum. We used Unreal Tournament’s Antalus Botmatch average-frames-per-second score; we tested at a resolution of 1,024 by 768 pixels. We used Compressor’s Fast Encode preset. For more information on Speedmark 3.3, go here .—Macworld Lab testing by James Galbraith

One surprise in our testing appeared when we tested the hard-drive access speed by duplicating 500MB of data. The 1.25GHz Mac mini beat the faster 1.42GHz model by 10 seconds. Upon further investigation, we found that the 1.25GHz model actually contains a 5,400RPM drive, despite Apple’s claim that it contains a 4,200RPM drive. The 1.42GHz model, does contain the slower 4,200RPM drive.

The other components worked as expected, with good AirPort reception and quiet operation, except for the somewhat loud robotic whir of the optical drive as it was accessing a disc. Not surprisingly, the Mac mini’s built-in speaker is weak, so you’ll want to connect external speakers or headphones to listen to music or watch movies. In our many hours of testing, the Mac mini did not heat up our desk much at all, probably due to its well-designed venting system and power supply located outside the case.

We have three words about the 256MB of RAM included with the Mac mini: it’s not enough. (Unfortunately, most of the standard consumer-level Macs only come with 256MB.) We used the mini with 512MB of RAM for hours, and were very happy with its speed and responsiveness, but once we removed that DIMM and put in the stock 256MB DIMM, it seemed a bit sluggish, and wasn’t such a pleasure to use anymore. As we’ve noted in other Mac reviews, 256MB RAM simply isn’t enough memory for OS X, especially if you are planning to use the iLife ’05 applications, which require a moderate amount of horsepower. At least it’s possible to upgrade the mini. But there’s only one DIMM slot, so if you get the standard mini with 256MB of RAM, you’ll need to buy a 512MB DIMM and replace the 256MB one.

Macworld’s Buying Advice

So is this little design marvel suited for you? The Mac mini will be a stellar bargain Mac if you want a tiny machine that lets you do basic tasks like check e-mail, use office applications, surf the Web, and make movies and organize photos. It will be especially attractive if you already have a DVI or VGA monitor, USB keyboard and mouse, and other USB or FireWire peripherals from an earlier Mac or PC. Power users will want to snag it as a headless e-mail, Web, or file server to use with a remote application like Netopia’s Timbuktu Pro 7.0, Apple Remote Desktop 2, or the open-source VNC. We were disappointed with the meager RAM in the standard configuration, but took solace in the fact that it’s upgradeable.

You get what you pay for when it comes to choosing the $499 or $599 model—only you can decide whether the $100 is worth the extra processor speed and 40GB of storage. Windows users who want to get their Mac feet wet without spending much money will find the Mac mini a good starting point. But if you need to buy a display, keyboard, and mouse—which can set you back $700 or more—we’d suggest looking at the 1.6GHz iMac G5 (   , December 2004 ), which costs $1,299.

[ See more about the Mac mini at Macworld ’s Mac mini page. ]

Mac mini
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